By Tom Collins
VITTORIA — One of Canada’s largest peanut growers says Ontario farmers can make a living just growing peanuts, but you need enough heat units and good soil.
“We have more market than we have product,” said Ernie Racz, who runs Kernal Peanuts at Vittoria in Norfolk County with his wife, Nancy. “We’ve gotten to the point where we don’t go to the shows anymore or promote. We have to turn customers away just because we don’t grow enough.”
Products from Kernal Peanuts are available from their online store and more than 50 stores and tourist locations across Ontario. They also sell wholesale to different companies across Canada.
However, not all of Ontario can grow the crop. Peanuts need about 3,000 heat units, and sandy soil is best, he said. Peanuts can be grown on clay soils, but it is more difficult to harvest as too much soil sticks to the crop.
It wasn’t an easy start. In the 1970s, Racz’s family grew tobacco, but it was around this time when it was starting to become well-known that smoking was a health risk. The family was looking for an alternative food crop that could replace imports but didn’t want to step on another farmer’s toes. “If I put in 100 acres of onions, I would screw up the onion market,” for the guy growing onions, he said.
In 1976, someone recommend peanuts to Racz’s father and they tried a 100-foot row as a test plot. They liked what they saw and began adding acres every year until they peaked at 150 acres in the mid-1980s. They started selling peanuts around 1979 and started Kernal Peanuts in 1982.
Peanut growing in Ontario was at its peak in the 1980s, with 1,200 acres planted by almost 30 growers. Now the number of peanut growers can be counted on one hand.
Harvesting proved difficult. In most of the world, harvesting is a two-step process: Dig up the peanuts (but still leave them attached to the plant) and then leave the crop on top of the ground to dry. Once they’ve dried to about 20 per cent moisture, the combined peanuts are brought to a dryer to finish drying down to 10 per cent moisture. Also, if a frost hits when the peanuts are drying, “they’re done,” Racz said.
It used to be if peanuts were combined the same time they were dug, yield losses were as high as 37 per cent as the combines weren’t designed to handle wet peanuts, he said.
University of Guelph Simcoe research station researcher Peter White designed a once-over harvester. That machine pulls the plant out of the ground and strips off the peanuts. Losses dropped to 10 per cent, Racz said.
However, the crop wasn’t left on the ground to dry and peanuts were harvested at 60 per cent moisture. Racz puts the peanuts into kilns that were left over from his tobacco days. It takes seven days at about 32 C to dry down to 10 per cent moisture. If the peanuts dry too fast, they develop an off-flavour. If they dry too slow, the peanuts will start to sprout again.
Racz yields about 2,000 lb. of wet peanuts per acre. After dry down, the yield is about 1,000 lb. of unshelled peanuts per acre, and once shelled, he has 600 lb. to 700 lb. of crop per acre.
Not letting anything go to waste, leftover peanut oil is filtered and used in the tractors as fuel, he said.
Other problems have been solved over time. Out of a fantastic yield of 3,000 lb. of peanuts, he very quickly discovered that 2,000 lb. was soil. After the crop was harvested, the peanuts were put into a bin with a washing machine the Raczes had developed to remove the soil from the peanuts.
Racz now grows about 60 acres and buys excess peanuts from another grower to meet demand.
His costs are about $800 an acre (including labour, fuel, seed, inoculants and spray). Racz charges about $6 per lb. for peanuts. They also sell specialty products, such as chocolate-covered nuts. An 80-gram bag of chocolate peanut clusters sells for $3.50. A 500-gram jar of peanut butter sells for $8.75. The smallest peanuts go to the bird seed market.
However, after about 45 years in the peanut business, the couple, both in their 70s, are looking to sell the business. Racz said they’ve had a tire kicker and haven’t advertised that the business is up for sale.
“We’re tired,” Racz said. “We’ve been doing this a long time. It was an adventure. Something no one had ever done. Now it’s a turn-key operation.”
Want to buy a peanut farm?
By Tom Collins